Capturing Beautiful Moments of Humanity Within Chaos

Chris Horn

Chris Horn had always been attracted to the idea of working alone and embracing dangerous situations. When he discovered that news photographers generally work in this fashion, he scoured the Blackburn College library to learn more. He studied books of celebrated war photographers Don McCullin and Sebastão Salgado and, with every image, became more convinced that he wanted to follow in their footsteps.

As it would happen, it’s the perfect type of work for Horn, now an award-winning photojournalist in Medellín, Colombia.

Graduating from Blackburn in 1984, Horn came to Carlinville as an “Air Force brat” from rural Virginia. He worked in construction as part of the College’s nationally-recognized student-led Work Program, where he learned to arc weld a steel roof deck, lay brick, shovel concrete, and so much more. Horn was active all over campus – acting and building sets for theatre productions, editing the student newspaper, The ‘Burnian, and being named Student Marshal during his senior year. He also had the opportunity to study abroad in Mexico for a semester which first inspired his passion for Latin America.

Blackburn College gave me a renaissance education, which was ideal for a young man who had no idea what the hell he was going to do with his life. With Blackburn, you could invent or even reinvent yourself.

Chris Horn ’84

In 2016, Horn immigrated to Colombia with his wife, who he cites as his most powerful support system in continuing to do this work. “Perhaps the only other entity that has impacted me like Blackburn College has been my wife of 28 years, who is the most courageous, passionate, and principled person I’ve ever known. She immigrated to the U.S. under duress from Chile after the military coup in 1973. Very few would have stayed married to me, a guy who purposefully walks out of the house to confront danger with a smile on his face,” he explains.

Horn has been photographing demonstrations and protests in Colombia since 2019. A city of nearly four million, Medellín has a lot going on, including civil war, the health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, cocaine trafficking, protests about tax reform, inequality, and combating police brutality. This growing state of unrest makes it perfect for the type of work that Horn likes to do. In his work, he not only showcases the reality of the situation but captures the beautiful moments of humanity within the chaos.

Chris Horn’s photo was named one of the ten best photos by the alternative press during the 2021 National Strike by the Colombian magazine Cien Días (Photo Courtesy Chris Horn)

“Medellín is certainly about drugs—almost every kilo that lands in the U.S. moves through here. But there are other stories in this city. My reporting is about the forgotten, the misbegotten, survivors, and victims of the never-ending conflict; the refugees, criminals, prostitutes, displaced, LGBT, and the public university students, who all come from impoverished barrios and are fighting a losing battle with a formidable, corrupt state,” said Horn.

Due to the nature of his work, Horn often finds himself in dangerous and violent situations. While his risks have paid off in the form of awe-inspiring action shots, that doesn’t mean that he is always safe from the brutality around him. In late 2019, as Horn photographed a violent confrontation between police and demonstrators, a squad of anti-riot police assaulted him with metal batons. Due to the injury, he had four screws and metal mesh placed in his right orbital bone. Luckily, it has not slowed him down, and he continues to document the protests whenever he is able.

“I spend a lot of time doing the usual “legwork” and research of any journalist—that is, a lot of time on my butt, reading the news, making phone calls, or meeting people for coffee. After four years of doing this, I can now go into just about any barrio (neighborhood), no matter how dangerous, because of the sources I’ve cultivated. This activity is at least 80% of my work; the remaining is shooting pictures on the street,” said Horn.

In April 2021, the Colombian government issued an ill-considered tax hike in the middle of a pandemic. With legions of people starving and begging, university students called for everyone to take to the streets. Horn captured as protesters clashed with anti-riot police. The police there are brutal and poorly trained, and they injure dozens—and sometimes kill—during every demonstration. 

Chris Horn’s photography is included in the pages of Colombian magazine Cien Días covering the unrest in the country (Photo Courtesy Chris Horn)

Despite the danger, Horn’s photos typically turn out exceptionally well due to the level of skill he has cultivated in the field. In fact, he recently had three photos featured in a contest run by the Colombian magazine Cien Días. The publication sought to bring together a diverse perspective of the strikes happening across the country. Judges examined quality, technique, concept, and the story told by each photographer. One of Horn’s photographs was named one of the ten best by the alternative press during the 2021 National Strike. The second photo was selected as an honorable mention, while a third was highlighted in another magazine section. Horn has also been the recipient of one of Colombia’s most prestigious journalism prizes.

“Few in the alternative press do this risky journalism for remuneration. They are among the best citizens I’ve met in Colombia. Here’s to them,” stated Horn.

When asked about how his time at Blackburn has affected him, he cites the professors and staff that helped mentor him. “I also had the privilege to learn from exemplary, demanding professors: James Schiffer, Mitch Clark, Pete Slavish, Melba Buxbaum, Sid Rawlins, and work program mentors Paul Tepikan, Jerome Brooks, and Roger Caruthers. They continue to exert a profound influence on me,” he explained.

“Blackburn College gave me a renaissance education, which was ideal for a young man who had no idea what the hell he was going to do with his life. With Blackburn, you could invent or even reinvent yourself,” he said.

My reporting is about the forgotten, the misbegotten, survivors, and victims of the never-ending conflict.

Chris Horn ’84

While he does talk about the excitement of his job that comes alongside all the risk, Horn points out that not everything about it is as thrilling as it seems. It has taken him a lot of time and work to make a living in this profession. “I would caution anyone about entering this profession because it has never been so challenging to make a living as a photojournalist or, more likely called today, a ‘visual journalist.’ If they choose photography for a career, I’d recommend learning all the ancillary skills—video, web design, etc.”

“I’d like to add—and I hope that this gives any student reading this pause—that I left this profession for about 10 years to work as a software trainer. I did this so I could save enough money to realize my dream now. I could never have quit my day job and moved overseas on a daily newspaper photographer’s salary. I took a chance, and it paid off.”

He added, “If any student is contemplating a career as a visual journalist, please write to me via my Instagram account: @chriserichorn and I’ll try to help.”

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